Here’s a sneak peek into The Lion’s first chapter. Releasing April 25th!
The heaviness continued to drop onto his chest as Leo drove further and further away from Levi. Further away from Belle. It always happened every time he distanced himself from her or the farm. The only way he could reason it was that it must have had something to do with all that praying she did.
Ever since that night when she first dispelled the darkness with one small, impromptu prayer, Leo began to see the pattern. On those days she prayed, the darkness stayed away. His nights weren’t tormented by dreams of fire and death. His soul didn’t feel as weighted and burdened. So, each morning, he asked if she prayed and if she said she hadn’t yet, he would slyly drop a hint that she should. Of course, she didn’t complain. Why should she? It was nothing to her. Just a string of words sent up to God to protect them and the farm from evil.
But to Leo, it was everything.
It meant the difference between walking around with an easy smile, because he had finally settled where he wanted to stay, or looking over his shoulder and starting at every loud noise, thinking it might be the demon coming to collect his payment.
It took a great deal of courage to mount his motorcycle and head south toward Little Rock, far away from Belle’s protection and deeper into the world he had tried to leave behind. It was all for her, though. If he didn’t do this, it’d take that much longer for Belle to achieve her dreams.
One call to an old acquaintance – the only one he had left that would still speak to him – sealed his plans for the evening and with a little money in his pocket and a change of clothes in his duffle bag, he left in the late afternoon.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive did little to settle his nerves or clear his head. He used to love riding on the highway. Of all the vehicles he had ever driven, the maneuverability of a motorcycle appealed to him the most. He could weave in and out of traffic, zoom on and off exits and effectively lose whoever might happen to be chasing him. On those drives when he could relax, let the wind pound his face and feel the grind of the wheels on the blacktop, Leo could zone out and not think so much. He didn’t have to think about his past or his future. Just this moment with only him, the road, and the deafening rumble of the engine beneath him.
He could do anything but relax now, because he knew exactly where he was going and what he’d be doing that night. Something he thought he’d never have to do again after he arrived in Levi.
It didn’t take long to find the place. Mack gave detailed directions that a toddler could follow. Even over the roar of his bike, he could hear the multitude of voices and music booming out of the warehouse just outside of town. The parking lot was packed, but he managed to find a cramped spot on the side closest to the river.
Leo didn’t make eye contact with the people he passed as he made his way toward the entrance. Smokers, groups of men with beer bottles in hand, couples displaying their affection in obscene ways, bookies, dealers, and thugs. It wasn’t so long ago that he knew this scene by heart. Being in Levi had cleansed him somehow and as he approached the bouncers at the door, he began to question himself again. The darkness practically lived here, and in places like it where sin went unchecked. He could feel its pull, like a black hole that Leo had once dangerously skirted the edges of not so long ago. And here he was again.
Did he really want to do this? He was capable of it. He was completely capable of winning the money for Belle’s stallion. But there was no turning back now. He had already called the man in Fayetteville and made the deal. He was expecting the money first thing in the morning.
“Mack called me in,” he told the two bouncers who were just a hair bigger than him.
The bald one flipped through his clipboard while the other sized Leo up, taking in his jeans and leather jacket. Leo could admit that he didn’t look like he was ready for a fight, but he never needed a fancy rig to pound another man into the dirt. He learned bareknuckle boxing when he was just a teen in Brooklyn. Most who did this for a living couldn’t say that.
The bouncer made it to the final page and tapped at the bottom of the sheet. “He penned you in.”
“Realized he couldn’t leave out his best guy.” Leo gave them both a cocky smile and they reluctantly let him through. In a place like this, arrogance was the common language.
The stench of cigarette smoke and beer hit him, making his eyes water a bit before he could adjust. The bass from the speakers beat against his ears and made the fabric of his clothes vibrate, once more dazing him before he could get a handle on his senses. He squinted against the flashing strobe lights as he pushed his way past the throngs.
The tip of his boot hit something on the floor and sent it rolling. He didn’t have to look to know it was a syringe. His arms reflexively jerked away from the seductive touches of the women who tried to grab his attention as he looked for Mack in the crowd. The fight was still a quarter of an hour away. If he guessed right, the man would be near the bar, taking more bets and organizing the tournament tree one last time.
Leo felt something brush at his pockets and he turned just in time to seize the hand that tried to make off with his keys. What he didn’t expect was for his fingers to connect around a small wrist. The boy looked up at him, the colorful lights like a kaleidoscope across his youthful face. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old.
He snatched away what was his and set the boy free, knowing he would just steal again from someone else. As much as he hated it, the boy wasn’t his responsibility and it wasn’t his place to correct him. With a sigh, he skimmed the crowd again and found the Red Socks ball cap bobbing lively across the sea of strangers.
Leo pushed through a cluster of drunken college students and edged past a tight grouping of ladies in leather skirts dancing with martini glasses before he could put his hand on Mack’s shoulder.
The manager jumped and spun around, wide eyes looking through a pair of tinted glasses. When he saw who had grabbed him, he let out an exaggerated breath.
“Scared me, man!” he shouted over the trap music. “Lookin’ good!” Mack reached out and squeezed Leo’s bicep in the kind of way that reminded him of a man who looked to buy a piece of livestock and wanted to test its sturdiness.
Leo smacked his hand away, effectively startling the manager. “I need a place to put my stuff,” he said, jerking his chin toward the duffle bag slung across his chest. Mack recovered and offered out his hand to take it there for himself. “Someplace no one will get to it,” he clarified, unafraid to sneer at him. It didn’t pay to be friendly in a place like this.
Mack’s throat worked when Leo dropped into that serious tone and then nodded. “All right. All right. I’ve got a locker in the backroom. You can put it there.” He handed Leo the tiny padlock key and gave him his usual thorough directions.
“When’s my fight?” Leo asked, making the key disappear in his fist, so no one would try to pinch it.
“You’re my first matchup!” Mack announced proudly, his one gold tooth blinking in the club lights. As if to prove that he wasn’t lying, he took the dry erase board he had been working on at the bar and showed him. The column of names on one side of the tree didn’t matter to him. The one blank spot where the winner’s name would be written did.
Mack began to list out the scant regulations set down for the tournament. The only restriction appeared to be the usual. No eye gouging and no groin shots. Everything else was permitted until his opponent tapped out or passed out.
“Kicks and grappling?” Leo asked.
The manager grinned. “All fair game.”
More than enough. Leo nodded in approval and pulled out his wallet to count out the bills.
“Buy-in’s five hundred.”
He froze in the middle of his count and shot Mack a glare that could peel paint. “You told me it was four.”
The wanker only shrugged. “Must have misspoke.”
Leo feigned a smile. “Must have.” He stacked what bills were needed to get him into the fight and held them out for Mack between his two fingers. Before the manager could take them, Leo grabbed for his shirt collar and pulled him in close. “You better not cross me on this,” he growled in warning. “If I find out you skimmed my winnings again, I will find you.”
And Mack knew Leo could. He didn’t have connections, but he had his demon who loved a good fight. The bookie’s hairy brows shot up and he nodded quickly, hands raised as if he had already been caught in the act.
“We’re clear,” he assured. “But I didn’t cross you that time, you know. It was – “
Leo shoved him against the bar counter, knocking over a few beer bottles in the process as Mack’s feet were nearly lifted off the floor. He could have easily snapped this weasel’s spine if he wanted to. Good thing for him, Leo still needed the money.
“I know it was you,” he snarled, getting close enough, so only Mack could hear him. “Be grateful I’m in a forgiving mood tonight. Otherwise, you’d be in the river by now.”
Before Mack had a chance to open his mouth and dig himself a deeper grave, Leo tucked the wad of bills in his front shirt pocket. Under the watch of several patrons to the bar, he let Mack nearly crumble in a heap and strode away to find the locker room.
He regretted nothing. Mack was a snake, no different than any of the other managers and bookies he had met across the country. They would sooner double-cross someone they thought wouldn’t notice and take a bigger portion of the payout. Leo wouldn’t be fooled. Not tonight. Not ever again.
Once more, he had to maneuver his way through the crowd, upsetting plenty and spilling drinks along the way. The long hallway to the locker room might have been the only empty place in the club. Can lights lit the path that stretched in a straight line toward the back of the complex, but shadows lined the walls and spaces between.
Leo gave himself permission to breathe again, but the darkness was close. He could tell in the subtle drop in temperature and the way the lights flickered and dimmed. It didn’t surprise him that the demon would show up here. Away from Levi, away from his lighthouse of calm, Leo was vulnerable again. But this was what the darkness wanted. Pain, fear, blood.
“I almost thought we’d never be here again.”
The voice scratched at the corners of his mind, slinking with him along the corridor. He knew, if he cared to look, what he would see. Either a floating immaterial orb of black mist, or a form that appeared much less sinister, like a swindling gambler or underhanded dealer ready to make bargains on souls. By the more substantial presence in his peripheral vision, he knew it was the latter.
“Don’t get excited,” Leo said. “I’m not staying.”
The demon edged closer in the form of a man wearing a neatly pressed suit and jacket, jet black hair and coals for eyes gleaming in the fluorescent light. “Oh, come on. You know you miss this.”
Leo scoffed. “Yeah, I totally miss the smell of piss, alcohol, and weed. Such a pleasant smell.”
A disturbing laugh bubbled up from the demon’s throat. “There’s that humor I missed. See, we’re so much better off here than in that little town in the middle of nowhere.”
He slid a scathing glare to the darkness, but wouldn’t slow or protest. “Here to collect payment?”
“You’ve had a week off, Leo. Thanks to that little – “
“If you call her anything but a lady, I’ll – “
“What?” he snapped. “Punch me? Strangle me? You forget that you can’t do anything, Leo. You’re powerless and always will be.”
He didn’t need to be reminded. Whatever the darkness wanted to do, he could do it. Except when Belle prayed. That was his only saving grace, but there was no way her prayers could reach this far. Could they?
“Just pay attention during the fight and you’ll get all the payment you need,” Leo directed, slamming the door in the demon’s face as he walked into the locker room.
It did little good. The darkness rematerialized beside him as he worked the padlock with the key he had been given.
“I know why you’re doing this,” the demon said, grinning to show his perfectly straight white teeth. “You’re trying to make your girl happy. It won’t work.”
“Watch me,” he dared.
“I’ll make you throw the fight. Take you out of the first round before you can get anywhere close to the semi-finals.”
“You won’t do shi-“ Leo stopped himself and bit back the word he wanted to use. “You won’t do anything. Think of all the lads I’ll beat into the floor tonight. You need that payment. Remember our deal?”
Leo stripped off his shirt and wadded it up before zipping open his bag to shove it inside. He then set to taking off his shoes and socks to join his shirt.
“And you remember what I told you? I need more than the typical payment, especially since your brother is getting closer.”
One thing about demons, he had learned, was that they didn’t have an ounce of loyalty in them, not even for the man who had tethered them to a victim. Twelve years he had lived with this curse, the darkness serving as the constant thorn in his side. But he did have one useful thing going for him. He told Leo when Matthew was catching up.
Leo shot a look to the demon to see if he was lying just to get a bigger blood payment. That was the agreement they had made months ago. If he did his part and gave the darkness what he wanted, Leo and Belle would be left alone. Of course, the game changed when Leo decided to pursue her. Now that they were living together in a hotspot that the darkness didn’t care to be in, the cost of their protection went up.
“How close?” he asked, hoping for an honest answer.
“Very. And I would rather not be around when he does come. Think of how mad he’ll be when he finds out I’ve been masking your trail for the sake of an extra fix.”
That was laughable. “You poor wee thing,” he mocked. He crammed his duffle bag in the locker, thoughtless to how the luggage would damage Mack’s package of cigarettes or the tiny bundle of cocaine tucked away in the back. Leo hoped he busted the plastic bag.
“Why don’t we stay in Little Rock? It’s such a fun town,” the darkness suggested as Leo began the methodical process of wrapping his hands in the gauze and athletic tape to protect his knuckles. By the end of the night, they would be stained red with blood.
“After this is over, I’m going to Fayetteville.”
The demon came around to face Leo. “There’s nothing in Fayetteville worth seeing.”
“And then I’m going back to Levi,” Leo stated impatiently, as if he had been saying it all night in one way or another. He wouldn’t leave Belle, no matter how much the darkness wanted him to. Like she said that day when he almost skipped town without telling her, he needed to take control of his life, one choice at a time. This choice, though made for odd purposes, was what he wanted, and the darkness would not pressure him into returning to this way of living – if it could even be called that.
“Why not stay a few days?” he said, almost whining like a child who was denied candy and was one refusal away from throwing a tantrum. “We could use some of the winnings to get a hotel, order room service, order some girls and – “
Leo shot daggers with his eyes that instantly made the vile mouth shut tight. He would have threatened to leave Little Rock right then if he thought it would do him any good. The darkness was smart enough to know that Leo needed this money just as badly as he needed the blood payment.
He finished wrapping his hands and left the locker room just as he heard the music dim for a minute to allow the presenter to publicize the first match. He didn’t care if the darkness followed or not. He’d be in the crowd, watching, absorbing the pain and misery of Leo’s opponents. It’d be just like old times.
Unceremoniously, Leo entered the main hall where the fighting would take place. His bare feet slapped against the cold concrete floor, wetted by the spilled beer and liquor from earlier that night. Mack was by his side as if he were a personal sponsor and hyped up the crowd when his name blared over the intercom. Men roared and cheered while women let out whistles and offers that were lost in the din.
He was led to the center of the room where one bright light hovered over the space sectioned off for the tournament.
Spectators leaned on the rope partitions to get a look at Leo as he swaggered forward to meet his first opponent. As always, his stomach tangled, but then he reminded himself that as long as his brother’s curse tarnished his soul, there was little man could do to him. He was kept alive to suffer and cause suffering for others. He’d get hurt, but death wasn’t in his near future. Not yet.
The ropes were closed behind him and he raised his fists, keeping his stance easy and light. The other man, leaner and an obvious novice, blew air past his protective mouthpiece and hopped about like an eager boxer.
Don’t waste your energy, he told himself. You’ve got a long night to go.
When the bell sounded, and the crowd shouted for their favorites, the thinner man came charging forward with a wild hook. Leo dodged and sent an uppercut into his ribs. The guy recoiled and put a hand to his side, eyes wide like he had never expected to be hit.
Leo shook out his hands and flexed his unpracticed knuckles. His fight with Drake was the last time he’d ever hit bone that hard. He readied himself again for the next assault, but was disappointed when the man came at him again with a similar greenhorn move.
He left himself open and Leo took the opportunity. He ducked and wrapped him in a chokehold from behind. One kick to the back of his leg buckled him to the ground. For a minute or two, they grappled with one another. Leo saw stars each time a punch connected with his head, but he willed himself to stay conscious during every reversal. Limbs twisted as they rolled across the concrete, scraping the skin of their arms and backs along the way.
Each time he thought the guy would tap out, he kept coming at him with more desperate jabs and kicks. Leo felt a bit of blood trickle from his nose after an elbow slammed into his face. He could taste its metallic essence on his lips.
He was kicked off and stumbled backward, giving his opponent time to jump to his unsteady feet. Leo wouldn’t give him the chance. He landed one solid punch to the jaw. He heard the crack, but didn’t care. The man finally crumbled to the floor and he waited for a hand to smack the pavement.
When it did, Leo spat a bit of the blood from his mouth and looked up. His eyes instantly met the devilish stare of the darkness in the crowd. The black pits that bore through him told enough. This tournament wouldn’t be a walk in the park for him like it used to be. The demon would drag this out and make the poor boys he fought think they had a chance against him.
The darkness wasn’t just in the business of making Leo’s life a living hell. He’d also drag along any other susceptible soul with him. That was why he needed to protect Belle, the only thing he cared about anymore.